November, for many, is a month known for heavy dinners and late-night shopping. Competing casseroles and Black Friday discounts. It’s a month of football, extended families, parades, and pie. It’s a season of overindulgence made possible through generations upon generations of sacrifices and battles that our fighting forces have endured. And that is why for many, November is a sobering reminder to give thanks to our military. As we march closer to Veterans Day, we must be aware of another battle that our nation’s veterans are facing. It’s an ongoing battle that leaves chairs at tables across America empty. This battle is suicide.
Texas Lifestyle Magazine recently had the privilege to sit down with Justin Schmitt, Assistant Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at USAA, a financial services company dedicated to serving the U.S. military community and their families. We asked him about USAA’s initiative to battle Veteran Suicide. Schmitt leads a team that drives USAA’s vision for corporate citizenship and social impact to positively impact our nation’s military families and USAA’s local communities. In 2023, Justin helped spearhead the creation of Face the Fight™, a social impact initiative founded by USAA alongside founding partners the Humana Foundation and Reach Resilience, an Endeavors Foundation. Face the Fight includes a coalition of corporations, foundations, and non-profit organizations to raise awareness and support for veteran suicide prevention. The aspiration of the initiative is to cut the veteran suicide rate in half by 2030.
Why are suicides so high among Veterans?
The sad reality is that more than 120,000 U.S. military veterans have died by suicide since 2001, driven by a veteran suicide rate that is currently 1.5 times the general population. It’s a complex problem, and contrary to what many believe, not just a mental health issue. Researchers have found that over half of those veterans who die by suicide don’t have a mental health diagnosis. They’re struggling with other risk factors – financial insecurity, trouble finding or keeping a job, alcohol or drug abuse, social isolation, or the challenging transition from the military to civilian life. These factors can take a toll and, without help, can lead to suicide. The encouraging news: researchers have also found that veteran suicide is preventable – and not simply inevitable. There are evidence-informed interventions proven effective at reducing veteran suicide risk and driving positive outcomes. For example, studies have shown that firearms are the most common method used in veteran suicide – and that tactics such as voluntary safe and secure storage allow veterans to maintain their personal firearms while putting just enough time between a suicidal thought and a suicide attempt. We want to direct more resources to scale effective interventions proven to save lives and complement government resources.
Everyone knows USAA as a financial institution supporting military communities, so how did Face the Fight™ come about and what is USAA doing to lead this coalition?
USAA has served the military community for over 100 years, and we’ve done that by knowing our members and supporting their well-being. Our mission drives us to care about veteran suicide prevention – and research tells us our members want us to focus support on this issue. About two years ago, when U.S. Armed Forces formally left Afghanistan, the VA reported record levels of crisis outreach from veterans for support. That timing coincided with the VA’s release of their National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, which highlighted the devastating toll of deaths over two decades. USAA wanted to help contribute to cut veteran suicide rates even more through philanthropic work – but we needed expert guidance to do so. Already a relationship of ours, we engaged the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and their STRONG STAR Training Initiative, which has expertise in evidence-based treatment to providers and organizations that provide mental health care to military and veteran communities. With their support and collaboration, we then engaged leading experts in military and veteran suicide prevention from VA, DoD, RAND, and the nonprofit sector to cultivate a philanthropic strategy derived from research. In June 2023, USAA, alongside founding partners the Humana Foundation, and Reach Resilience, an Endeavors Foundation, joined together to launch Face the Fight™, a coalition open to corporations, foundations and nonprofit organizations that want to contribute to veteran suicide prevention efforts. The Face the Fight coalition will invest $41 million in philanthropic grants (to start). USAA and the USAA Foundation seeded the Face the Fight initiative with $10 million in philanthropic grants to develop critical, community-based clinical infrastructure prior to the launch of Face the Fight. For example, our first round of funding included support for Cohen Veteran Network, Stop Soldier Suicide, and The Headstrong Project, helping them develop new capabilities and increased capacity for suicide-specific care to serve veterans, service members, and their families nationally. We also are collaborating with an incredible team at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to build a coalition and cultivate support from like-minded companies, organizations, and individuals. We recognize that one company can’t enter the arena of suicide prevention and expect to turn the tide single-handedly. Companies and corporate foundations can play a complementary role in veteran suicide prevention, destigmatize help-seeking behaviors, put the spotlight on resources proven effective and collaboratively fund interventions that reduce veteran suicide.
Your website mentions breaking the stigma surrounding suicide in the military community through awareness and fostering open conversations around support and hope. What is Face the Fight™ doing to raise awareness and foster open conversations?
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for post-9/11 veterans. In 2020, suicide rates were highest among veterans between the ages of 18-34. And like so many of the pressures on those who serve, suicide has a cascading effect on their loved ones. Family members who find themselves on the frontlines of suicide often begin to suffer their own symptoms of stress and anxiety. The children of those who die by suicide are three times more likely to die by suicide, too. That’s why a key aspect of Face the Fight is a public awareness campaign targeted towards veterans, the military community and their support networks. Important resources spotlighted on wefacethefight.org support veterans and their families in times of transition or crisis, including the recently established 988 suicide and crisis lifeline. The national lifeline, supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides access to a qualified responder who will assess callers to determine whether they are in immediate danger and then connect them to the appropriate resources. Following the call, users are connected to a local suicide prevention coordinator who will provide continued support. We are working to raise awareness of resources within the nonprofit sector that are highly effective and available at no cost to military families, like Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS is a nationwide peer support network for surviving loved ones and family members at no cost. The organization provides services such as regional survivor seminars for adults and children, help with burial costs and benefits records, and grief counseling.
USAA is communicating to its 37,000 employees and 13 million members about Face the Fight to raise their awareness of veteran suicide prevention and resources available for military families. Additionally, we’re using our partnerships and our new coalition members to amplify the message broadly across the veteran and military communities. We want to change the culture that it is not a sign of weakness to seek support when you need it; it is in fact a sign of strength. As we add coalition members, we seek to pool resources through a Face the Fight Charitable Fund, gain in-kind resources that promote Face the Fight and communicate a cohesive message about diverse resources and interventions available for military families. At the end of the day, knowing there are people and organizations available for our veterans is the most important thing. You may be in a dark time or in dark moments, but we want them to know who you can call and for you to feel comfortable reaching out and connecting. We believe that creating purpose through community is one of the more powerful antidotes. If our coalition can help drive that connectivity, we will have a much better probability of helping solve this important challenge.
With only a couple months in operation, what are some of Face the Fight’s™ major milestones? Challenges?
We have more than 50 Face the Fight coalition members and many more in the pipeline. We are in active discussions with dozens of other companies and organizations that want to be part of Face the Fight and drive cross-sector collaboration. USAA and The USAA Foundation’s next round of grantmaking will provide $7.5 million to build upon clinical care and extend suicide prevention efforts aligned with our evidence-informed strategies – and was announced in September during National Suicide Prevention Month. Frankly, the challenge is that what we’re attempting to do is hard. Things like coalition-building at scale, fostering cross-sector integration, facilitating collaborative grantmaking, identifying ways to innovate around evidence-informed programs – all of it takes time, capacity, and coordination between multiple entities.
What can we, either as an individual or company, do to support the cause and coalition?
We encourage people to learn more about Face the Fight, join the Fight or seek help by going to wefacethefight.org. To explore opportunities to formally join the Face the Fight coalition or support suicide prevention within the military community, you reach out through email at email@example.com. The private and philanthropic sectors can no longer sit on the sidelines.
Cover photo courtesy USAA
Martin Ramirez is a brisket-eating, Shiner-loving, road-tripping enthusiast of all things Texas. This Dallas-born writer / adventurer is ready to take his ‘78 El Camino to find the best in food, fun, and fitness throughout the Lone Star State